My introduction to Rose Macaulay was The World My Wilderness. I knew then I wanted more--to read about her and read more of her books, and Crewe Train has just cemented the deal. Someone recently asked me what the book was about and wanting to give the most concise answer I said it's a satire of London Society after WWI. And it is that, but it's so very much more, too. Jane Emery's most excellent introductory essay filled in so many gaps and shed so much light on her life, she's made me keen to read more. Sooner than later that is.
Denham Dobie, the novel's heroine, if you can call her that, is an interesting creation. She is by equal parts appealing and maddening. She put me in mind just the tiniest bit of Elizabeth Taylor's Angel, though I found Denham much more likable. Denham's aunt Evelyn calls her primitive (in the kindest way really), and she is a little like a blank slate. Denham marches to the beat of her own drum. She's completely indifferent to the social whirl of London Society, not really even understanding or caring (or caring to understand) for the nuances of contemporary life there. It's a mystery to her why people do the things they do, which seems so much work, when life could be so much simpler.
The only daughter of a retired clergyman, the two go off to live in Andorra when Denham was but a child at the death of her mother. "Abroad was best, he decided, for abroad you are less surrounded by inquisitive and sociable persons who wonder why you do nothing, and insist with conversing with you." Like father, like daughter, but in the end her father insists on marrying once again, "ensnared by passion and a desire for household comfort." When he dies her stepmother is more than anxious to pass Denham, now a young woman, back off to the first wife's family who come to bring her home to England.
The Greshams are a publishing family. Not only do they publish books, they write them (everyone there seems to be writing a book), and read them and seem to talk about them endlessly. They talk quite a lot in general and are happy to socialize, when Denham much prefers freedom and solitude.
"Denham sometimes dreamed of a life in which one took practically no trouble at all. One would be alone; one would have no standards; there would be a warm climate and few clothes, and all the food off the same plate, if a plate at all. And no conversation . . . It would be a very low-class, lazy, common life; it was better not to think about it while one was trying to be civilized and high-class."
Which is how the Greshams live--very civilized and high-class. They throw parties, go to parties, see plays and go off to country house weekends. Despite being civilized they're also on the bohemian side, but still entirely respectable. Certainly they don't go around London with strings in place of laces in their shoes or without at least the smallest attention to how they're presented to the rest of Society (unlike Denham who neither notice nor cares what she's wearing or how her hair looks--she cuts it herself as a matter of fact).
It's at a country house weekend that Denham and Arnold Chapel, a member of the Gresham's publishing firm (who's also writing a book by the way), click and fall in love. The two couldn't be more different but perhaps in the essentials they're suited. Or maybe not even in the essentials exactly, but love's a mystery sometimes and the two marry. What follows is the civilizing (mostly against her will) of Denham. It's an amusing send up of London's cultural life. Denham is not so far off really in thinking that so much of what society does, it does because it thinks it's necessary, when maybe it's not so very necessary.
Crewe Train was published in 1926 and must have been a provocative book at the time. Macaulay is such an amusing writer, yet she does not shy away from putting any aspect of good society under the microscope for closer inspection. The story has so many great lines, I was continually turning down pages with passages worth noting. There are a number of really hilarious scenes mostly to do with publishing and books and writers, and the closing line is surely one of the best I've come across in a long time--funny and ironic, though tinged with something a little darker and sadder as well.
There are glimpses of Rose Macaulay in the character of Denham Dobie, though Emery notes that the two couldn't be more different. Macaulay was gregarious and scholarly. She spent part of her childhood in Italy on the Mediterranean with her parents and many siblings in a town where they were the only English residents. Like Denham she "played in and out of the sea" and was quite a tomboy. When the family returned to England she was loathe to "become a proper lady", yet she was well educated and comfortable in London's literary circles. During World War II she even drove an ambulance in London. She lost her flat and all its contents in the Blitz which is the subject of one of her short stories, and which I briefly wrote about here.
"She was to become known as a woman of letters: a novelist, a biographer, a literary critic, a literary and social historian, a political commentator, a reviewer of books, films and radio programs, an essayist, columnist, anthologist, travel writer, and a star of the BBC wireless program, The Brain Trust. But in the midst of this intellectually sophisticated, hard-working, and fast-moving life, the memory and influence of the outdoor freedom and joyful reading of her childhood remained alive."
Quite a remarkable woman and what little I read about her biographically only just barely whetted my appetite.
Crewe Train is almost assured of finding itself in the top ten favorite books of this year for me. It was wry and witty and the prose smart and crisp. I feel a bit slapdash in writing about it as I've only just finished in time for the Slaves discussion (watch this space for more about the book, and feel free to join in the discussion) and would have liked to share more of the really good bits from the story. But this is most certainly worthy of a reread, so maybe I'll get another chance to write about it again later (and share more of the flavor of the story). I most certainly will be reading more of her books, and have already brought home with me The Towers of Trebizond, which is supposed to be her best (dare I go straight to her best when there are so many others to explore which might only pale in comparison?). Do give her a whirl if you've not yet read her, you won't regret it.